The English word Monk derives from the Latin monachus, originally referring to a religious hermit,
but eventually coming to mean instead a male member of a religious order living in a community of other renunciants devoted to the performance of religious duties.
Similarly, while terms for Monk in the Buddhist tradition (Sanskrit, Bhikṣu or Śramaṇa; Pāli, Bhikkhu or Samaṇa) are rooted in words connoting mendicancy and austerity,
the Buddhist Monk is more generally understood as a member of a community of religious renunciants (the Saṅgha in Pāli, Saṁgha in Sanskrit) who has undergone a formal Ordination ceremony conducted by a quorum of fully ordained Monks.
In addition to the fully ordained Monk (Bhikṣu), novice Monks (Śrāmaṇera) may also be considered members of the monastic community.
Hence, one way to understand what it means to be a Buddhist Monk is to examine the collective to which Monks belong.
It is equally useful, however, to focus on smaller groups or types of Monks within this larger community, and to examine the most common motivations for becoming a Monk—subjects not necessarily covered in compendia of monastic regulations or discussions of the history of the monastic community as a whole.
One such type is the Ascetic Monk, who devotes himself to physical austerities.
Almost all Monks are ascetics in a loose sense of the term, since becoming a Monk involves renunciation of certain sensual pleasures, usually including avoidance of sex, adornment, and alcohol.
But some Monks are drawn to the challenge of greater acts of self-denial. These may involve fasting, sleep deprivation, self-mutilation, and various other sorts of physical trials.
Reasons for a man to pursue such a life are various, including:
- an attempt to purify the body,
- to experiment with states and insights achieved through mortification of the body,
- a desire for the prestige that society renders ascetic virtuosi,
- and even, in some cases, dementia and masochism.
One or more of these factors coalesce in the ascetic, one type of Buddhist exemplar.
The Buddha himself is an ambivalent model for the ascetic Monk:
In one of the most memorable episodes in accounts of the Buddha’s life, he rejects extreme austerities after nearly starving himself to death,
and, much to the dismay of his disciples, begins to take food after realizing that Enlightenment cannot be achieved on an empty stomach.
In the context of ancient India, with its strong traditions of severe asceticism, the Buddha cannot be said to have promoted an extreme variety of self-mortification.
Nevertheless, the stories of the Buddha’s ascetic feats before this realization, including acts he committed in previous lives, have inspired many to follow his earlier example.
Another important early exemplar of the ascetic path was the Buddha’s disciple Mahā Kāśyapa, known as “the foremost of those who observe the austere discipline.”
Mahā Kāśyapa engaged in long bouts of uninterrupted meditation, isolated in a cave, and wearing only robes made of coarse rags, cast off by others.
So immune was he to sensual concerns that, according to one account, he once accepted and ate an offering from a leprous woman into which a piece of her rotted finger had accidentally fallen.
For Monks outside of India, more proximate models for Ascetic Practices are readily found in accounts of local Monks in Tibet, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
Supernormal powers are one of the byproducts of ascetic practice:
Mahā Kāśyapa, for instance, was said to be able to fly.
Stories of strange and wondrous abilities are often attached to such figures and are among the reasons Monks have chosen to pursue ascetic training.
In modern times, Buddhists throughout the world have, following a general trend, become increasingly uncomfortable with extreme forms of asceticism,
but the ascetic impulse at some level continues to provide a key motivation for men to become Monks and for the laity to follow them.
If the ascetic lifestyle appeals to those attracted to physical and at times even anti-intellectual practice, the model of the Scholar Monk provides inspiration for men drawn to the study and explanation of Buddhist doctrine, ritual, and history.
For much of the history of Buddhism, monasteries were centers of learning, equipped with excellent libraries and staffed with erudite Monks.
Indeed, in pre-modern Śrī Lanka and Burma (Myanmar), monasteries served as schools for neighboring children, providing basic education in reading and writing as well as Buddhist knowledge.
Even in China, with its strong tradition of secular learning, candidates preparing for the imperial civil service examinations would often study in monasteries for the discipline and tranquility, not to mention books, to be found there.
As in the case of asceticism, a model for the scholar-Monk could readily be found among the Buddha’s most prominent disciples in the person of Śāriputra, known among the Buddha’s disciples as “foremost in wisdom.”
Praised for his prodigious memory, astute questioning, and ability to refute false doctrines in pointed debate, Śāriputra was also the paradigmatic saint of the most abstruse, formal branch of Buddhist knowledge, Abhidharma.
All cultures where Buddhism is practiced have produced Monks known for their erudition, primarily in Buddhist learning, but also in fields not directly related to Buddhism, such as painting, poetry, calligraphy, engineering, and medicine.
The Japanese Monk Kūkai (774-835), for instance, in addition to his considerable contributions to the development of Buddhist thought in Japan,
is also known as one of Japan’s greatest calligraphers, poets, and lexicographers, credited with compiling the oldest extant dictionary in Japan and even, some claim, with inventing the kana syllabary— the foundation of modern written Japanese.
In modern times it is not uncommon for scholastically inclined Monks to pursue academic degrees at home and abroad, and to teach in secular institutions.
While not, at first glance, as glamorous as the otherworldly ascetic or the brilliant scholar,
the institutional leader, responsible for monastic administration and the performance of ceremony is essential to the survival of the Saṅgha:
On a mundane level, monastic administrators are charged with soliciting funds and overseeing the performance of ritual for lay patrons.
They also set standards for the monastery, in some cases earning a monastery a reputation for rigor, intellectual activity, or splendor of ceremony.
Institutional leaders may be either conservative Monks, determined to maintain traditional standards, or re-formers, intent on introducing change to the Buddhist order or to society in general.
In the 20th century, Buddhists have turned to such reform Monks to meet the challenge of finding new sources of revenue with the emergence of radically different national economies, and of opposing or incorporating new intellectual and social trends, including socialism, feminism, and the findings of modern science.
Leading Buddhist Monks now establish universities and hospitals, instigate missionary programs abroad, and at times exercise considerable political influence.
In Taiwan and Śrī Lanka, Monks have stood for political office.
Less directly, but more importantly, leading Monks shape the political opinions of their followers and control substantial economic resources.
While some express discomfort with the prestige and power that accrue to institutional leaders, seemingly at odds with the traditional monastic imperative to renounce such values, others see them as admirable and necessary for protecting and disseminating Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Standing outside these conventional types, on the margins of the monastic community, are Monks known for their eccentricity:
The “holy fool,” a Monk who appears to be mad or stupid but is in fact Enlightened, is a stock figure in much of Buddhist art and literature. Such figures are often credited with supernatural powers to foresee the future, heal the sick, and influence the weather.
The 5th century Chinese miracle-worker Baozhi, for instance, was known to wander the streets making incomprehensible statements. Only later were his statements understood to have predicted important events.
In modern times, some Monks are known for their bizarre, unpredictable behavior and willingness to break monastic regulations on the grounds that a full appreciation of doctrines of non-duality and emptiness renders conventional restrictions moot.
Attitudes toward such figures are necessarily ambivalent, as it is often difficult to distinguish between an Enlightened holy man, beyond the ken of ordinary morals, and a charlatan.
Individual Monks may be more drawn to one of the types of Monks described above over another, but few Monks would openly challenge the legitimacy of any of them:
Ascetics, scholars, institutional leaders, and even enlightened eccentric Monks are all, for the most part, positive images.
Equally prominent in all cultures where Buddhism is practiced, however, is the negative image of the corrupt, degenerate Monk:
In Buddhist writings, perhaps the most famous bad Monk was Devadatta, cousin and disciple to the Buddha, who out of envy and ambition tried repeatedly to thwart the Buddha’s goals, at one point even attempting to poison him, an act for which he was, in the end, consigned to hell.
Equally vile was Mahādeva, said to have had sex with his mother before killing both his parents, after which he sought ordination in a desperate attempt to redeem himself:
As a Monk, his most significant act was to propose 5 controversial theses that led to dissension within the Saṅgha.
Legends such as these probably grew out of attempts to vilify proponents of rival schools or factions.
Descriptions of malicious, insincere Monks are common in Buddhist writings, where they are condemned and employed as a pedagogical device to inspire more noble Monks to avoid their example.
Because of this rhetorical aspect in such stories, one must be cautious before accepting accounts of immoral Monks as accurate descriptions of real behavior, even when such accounts come from Buddhist sources.
Outside of Buddhist sources, the corrupt Monk is also a stock figure in non-Buddhist literature, where Monks are often portrayed as only pretending to accept Buddhist principles of renunciation and detachment in order to better achieve the most base and worldly aims.
The characteristics of such Monks depend in part on the mores of their country of origin:
In China, for instance, where vegetarianism is an important part of the Monk’s identity, Monks are often portrayed as secretly satisfying their cravings for meat and wine. And sexually depraved, insatiable Monks appear in the literature of all cultures where Buddhism is practiced.
Again, it is often difficult to assess the accuracy of such characterizations:
While from ancient times to the present there have no doubt always been Monks of questionable ethics ready to violate their vows for selfish intent, many such accounts are products of lay fantasy rather than accurate descriptions of actual Monks.
Grouping the entire monastic community into a few ideal types masks its diversity:
In addition to joining the Saṅgha for ascetic training, to investigate Buddhist doctrine, to promote Buddhist institutions, or for less lofty motives,
some join because of social obligation, whether out of the custom of becoming a Monk for a short period as in Thailand and Burma, or to fulfill a vow made by one’s parents.
Men become Monks after failing in the secular world or after becoming disillusioned with secular success. They may seek tonsure out of a yearning for tranquility, contempt for the materialism and pettiness of ordinary society, or out of a sense of boredom.
In short, the list of reasons for becoming a Buddhist Monk is long and varied.
It is in part because of this diversity of character and motive that the monastic vocation has held such an enduring appeal for so many and that Monks have played such an influential role in all of the societies in which Buddhism is or was once prevalent.